I am delighted to present to you, part one of the AZ SnakePit interview with Arizona Diamondbacks General Manager, Josh Byrnes. Since joining the franchise in October 2005, he has been instrumental in shaping and building the team, resulting in an appearance for us in the 2007 National League Championship Series. After signing a contract extension that runs until 2015, he looks set to be part of the front-office team for the foreseeable future, and it was therefore very useful to get an insight into the man and his approach to the game and the business. I think this may be the longest such interview since his arrival with the team.
Some things to bear in mind with regard to the questions. Firstly, I generally aimed to look forward, not back. If part of me did want to ask a question which could be summarized as "CQ: WTF?", the truth is that's water under the bridge and there's no point brooding over it. I trust it hasn't been forgotten, bearing in mind George Santayana's famous comment, that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But then, so are those who live in the past, and I am more inclined to agree with George Bernard Shaw: "We learn from history that we learn nothing from history."
Second, I tried to avoid questions which have already been asked a million times before. While I could have brought up Randy Johnson's departure, Josh Byrnes would have been fully justified in opening his desk drawer and whipping out this pic. Finally, I had no interest in asking questions I know wouldn't be answered. Yes, we all want to know why negotiations with Webb broke down and the club pulled its offer. However, better journalists than I have [presumably] asked them, and been turned away. Life's just too short - inevitably, so was this interview, though I was amazed to find how much ground was covered in the alloted time. While I could certainly have gone longer, it may be for the best we didn't, since it works out that every minute of tape takes about ten to transcribe...
The interview took place last Thursday, before the announcement of Tom Gordon's signing, and the transcript will be split into two parts, published today and Wednesday. it will be presented without further comment from me - analysis will be done in a follow-up piece, currently scheduled for Friday. And without further ado:
AZ SnakePit: How much adaptation did you have to do on coming out here from Boston - which obviously is a historic franchise, a rich franchise, with a fanatical fanbase as well? Was there much 'culture shock' involved?
Josh Byrnes: I think every market is different, every franchise is different, every set of challenges is different. In Boston, probably more than any other place, you're constantly focussed on the Yankees. Though I imagine that's changed to some degree, since another team from the AL East made it to the World Series. It's different here: I think the challenge was change was coming; the franchise needed to re-invent itself to some degree. We had a good young talent base that was ready to mature, and all the issues related to it, getting our payroll in order and making decisions to put the right young players in positions where they could complete their development at the major-league level.
AZ: What would you say was the overall philosophy of the Diamondbacks, now you've been here for several years? Are you able to establish one for the team going forward?
JB: I think so. From a personnel standpoint, we've built a roster primarily through home-grown players and trades - this off-season has been our first involvement in free-agency since two years ago. For a lot of reasons, free-agency doesn't make a lot of sense for our franchise - we've used it this year because it has made sense. But that's how we've constructed it: it's been a young position-player based team, we've put a lot of our resources into starting pitching. The combination of both has served us pretty well, and I think it will continue to evolve. Our young position players will hopefully continue to get better - and they'll get more expensive also!
AZ: Is that approach a result of the team being a mid-market franchise?
JB: There are a lot of things that determine a payroll. I think ours is consistent, relative to our revenue - and obviously we're also paying off some debt, which is somewhat unique to us. Obviously, I think we have enough to be competitive. We feel good: I think only one team in the past two years has a better winning percentage with lower aggregate spending. It's a challenge: we don't have the margin for error tsome teams do. Ten teams this year will probably have payrolls of $100 million or greater and we're not in that range, but I think we have enough to be very competitive.
AZ: One thing you mentioned there, was that free-agency made sense for you this year. Is that perhaps an effect of the general recession? And how do you think that's going to affect baseball and the Diamondbacks?
JB: I'll answer that two ways. Free agency in general, you're paying for players who are a little bit older, and you're signing them for long deals. I think the risk of a longer commitment paying for past performance is probably a risk we need to avoid. This year, we've been able to sign two free agents who are still in their twenties, to short deals, so it's been a different outcome. But it's certainly based upon the economy. It was a confluence of a lot of events. It's a pretty-good free-agent class, and I think as the dust settles, thirty payrolls in 2009 will probably equal what they were in 2008 - unlike most years where the industry payroll would inflate by a certain percentage. This year, it's relatively flat and that's put quite a squeeze on the free-agent market. and changed the cost structure.
AZ: And going forward for the Diamondbacks, what are the challenges of attracting fans - perhaps tied to the Cardinals' success this year?
JB: Derrick and Tom Garfinkel probably have a better handle on the revenue side. We have our own own unique set of circumstances. Our season-ticket holders are incredibly loyal; our TV ratings are very good. It's really the next segment of fans - the spontaneous buyers. I think all the variables are important, but I think the most important is putting a good product on the field. In that respect, the Diamondbacks have had seven winning seasons out of ten, four playoff teams, the last two years we've spent more days in first-place than any National League team. But it takes time. I think we've got to earn credibility and earn customers.
AZ: There have been reports the Diamondbacks have a strict no-incentives policy when negotiating. Is that the case, and if so what's the purpose behind it? Do you feel this has hampered the team, especially negotiating with high-risk/high-reward players?
JB: It's true. We probably have made, and willing to make, a small exception to that where we would create a contract model where the variability is based upon health rather than traditional things like innings pitched, games started, plate appearances. The reason for doing it is to know what your team costs, for one - it helps us budget and plan. Two, it can become a clubhouse issue when you have too many players where their 'meters are running', so to speak. It's only natural that they're aware of their next threshold of earnings.
AZ: Are there ever occasions where you would want to have loosened it, so you could go after particular players?
JB: I think the one demographic is the pitcher with some health questions. In that respect, I think we can satisfy the risk/reward of it through creating provisions based on health rather than statistics.
AZ: Going back to your early days in Cleveland, you were one of the first to use video for scouting purposes. What technology is likely to be most significant for baseball front-offices going forward?
JB: The Internet's been a powerful tool - cellphones and email, not to be too simplistic about it, but it has changed how the business operates. Video's important, and it's come a long way since we moved into Jacobs Field in 1994 and we had a video room. Then going into digital, and co-ordinating it with charting, so we could randomly access events and games and have video behind it. The next challenge is the immediacy and portability of it.
As an example, for preparing a meeting with a post-season opponent, we have a little bit more time to support a scouting report with video. When you have the demands of every day, and travel, it's a hard thing to do over a 162-game season. Can we make better use of our plane time? Can we have more effective meetings in visiting clubhouses? We're probably able to get video more quickly on amateur players; one of the better players in this draft, I've already seen three at-bats from his first game. One of our scouts filmed it, and sent it to us. The next day I can watch players we're scouting in the Dominican and so on and so forth. That will continue to evolve; just how portable and how quickly you can access video.
AZ: Some of the people on your Baseball Operations staff don't have traditional baseball backgrounds. What does someone like that add, as opposed to a "traditional" baseball background, either as a scout, coach or player?
JB: Actually, I think that's a misconception. Everyone who sits on this hallway has at least played college baseball, or in the case of Helen Zelman, college soccer. Three of the people played in the major leagues. To have people who are in the front-office inner-circle and have played either at the college level or above, across the board, is unusual. That's probably a pretty good playing background for a front-office. As we've built the staff, it is combining your academic background with your playing background, and your skills and experience contribute to your decisions. We don't want to reject the sort of insights you get from playing; we never have.
AZ: You yourself played baseball back in college. How does the competitive rush compare from being out on the field to being in an office, and watching it unfold from there?
JB: I guess there's a little less adrenaline, but I guess the competitiveness is pretty similar. Certainly, talking to Jerry DiPoto and AJ Hinch, guys who played a while in the major leagues, they view their jobs, as competitive as their jobs playing. We would also say of our scouts, if you're scouting just to fulfill the assignment, that's ok, but we'd rather have scouts who are competing. The day they're at a park with ten other windbreakers out there, but they're seeing more, picking up more information and relaying it, and they realize that it's a competition to get the players right.
AZ: In what ways will the recent departure of Jeff Moorad change the franchise?
JB: I think it will change it. We have a lot of great people here, both in baseball ops and, obviously, Ken Kendrick, Derrick Hall, Tom Garfinkel - I think more than in most organizations, our business and baseball people speak the same language and interact well. Jeff is a very bright, strategic, "thick-skinned" person whom on a daily basis invested a lot in his people and wanted us to succeed and support as well. He'll be missed, but we have a lot of good people here to pick up the slack.
AZ: At the end of the 2008 season, having fallen short by a couple of games, what did you see as the areas most in need of addressing at that point?
JB: Our team in 2008, obviously our offense was very inconsistent. Generally, it ended up in the middle-third on most metrics of relevance - but it didn't feel like that, it was either really good or really bad, it wasn't a consistent run-scoring approach. Our starting pitching was terrific; our bullpen had high points and low points, and obviously people remember the low points. I think even in May and June, when our season sort of got off-track, something which should be more of a constant for us, our defense and base-running, wasn't as good as I think it could be. That carried us largely through '07 and the first part of 08, and I think we gave away some games because of it.
I think there was the mind-set of it: for '07, people didn't expect us to be able to do it. We got off to a great start in '08 and for the first time, this group was expected, both locally and nationally, to win this division and be a factor in October. The psychology of shifting expectations - maybe we didn't handle it as well as we could have.
AZ: Do you think that was a result of it being a fairly young team, particularly the position players?
JB: Maybe. You know, I'd probably be the last person to concede any issue, be it good or bad, as being related to our age in the last couple of years, but I think that might have been. Something I remember Orel Hershiser saying in '95, when we were having a magical season in Cleveland was "Until you've gone through it a few times, you don't realize how good this season is" - and maybe appreciate and enjoy it but also take advantage of the opportunity.
The reality is that eight of 30 make the playoffs, it's not easy to get in, and when you have a chance, you do everything you reasonably can to take advantage of that opportunity. Seeing our guys, this time of year, getting ready for spring training, my sense is they hopefully now have perspective, that last year really was an opportunity we didn't cash in, so I think there'll be quite a bit of intent as we take the field in '09.
[Here ends Part 1. In Part 2, we quiz our GM about topics including the 2009 roster, draft tactics and the future of the franchise]